Augusta McMahon is not a detective. But she considers detective work an important part of what she does. “Some people would say that is what archaeology is,” she says. “Solving mysteries and interpreting the scenarios from very limited clues.”

In the spring of 2007, the Cambridge based archaeologist led an excavation in Tell Brak, close to Syria’s border with Turkey and Iraq and one of the earliest known cities in the world. It was first excavated in 1937-38 by Sir Max Mallowan, husband of Agatha Christie who accompanied him on his excavations in Mesopotamia. There, he discovered an ancient eye temple containing small alabaster statues with enormous eyes.

Augusta McMahon at an excavation site in Tell Brak, an ancient city in Syria

McMahon and her team began digging in Tell Brak in 2007 and uncovered human remains. But it soon began to emerge that the bodies were disarticulated. They weren’t intact. Perhaps there had been a cemetery somewhere else which had been cleared up and moved over. Someone may have scraped that all to the side and made a sort of mass grave.

As McMahon and her team worked on the site, it became clear the degree of disarticulation was the same across all the bodies. That indicated they had all probably died at the same time. “There is a sort of forensic aspect to that as well, which is actually very similar to modern forensic science, that was brought into play,” McMahon says.

In 2008, there was a much larger excavation as well as analysis of the remains and material near the bodies. The Tell Brak skeletons were of people in their teens, 20s and 30s. The degree of disarticulation and evidence of violent injuries led to the idea of violent conflict. And because the mass grave was at the edge of the city, “it seemed to suggest it was internal problems, rather than an attacking force or anything like that,” she says.

McMahon’s discovery marked Tell Brak as the site of the oldest known civil war, estimated to have taken place around 3900 BC.

“There is other evidence of very early violence,” McMahon says. “What made the findings at Tell Brak stand out were that it involved large numbers of people being killed at the same time. You can imagine there being a sort of civil war in which literally there were hundreds of people who were killed.”

The normal Mesopotamian burial procedure was to put the entire body in the ground relatively quickly with other grave goods. In the Tell Brak mass grave there were none. “It means that in the afterlife you are missing an arm or leg, but you are missing all the grave goods you need as well.” This fit with the idea of a civil war rather than a war with an external enemy. “That was very dramatic,” she says.

Other firsts in Mesopotamia point to the development of cities, religious power, secular kings and writing. “First pottery is actually invented in Japan. But pottery is invented very early in Mesopotamia,” says McMahon. Another significant invention was the wheeled vehicle. It was these sorts of facts and intriguing questions which first drove McMahon to study Mesopotamia, rather than Egypt or the classical world.

Her interest in archaeology started from childhood. Growing up in the 1970s, McMahon has vivid memories of visiting the Cahokia Mounds near her hometown of St Louis in the United States. Once a thriving Native American city, McMahon remembers it for big burial mounds and visiting the local museum.

McMahon obtained her undergraduate degree in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. She went on to do her BA and PhD in Mesopotamian Archaeology at the University of Chicago, and worked in Syria and Iraq on archaeological projects.

“One of my first times in the Middle East,” she says. “To be so lucky and just to dig some place so incredibly fascinating just makes that in some ways my favourite place,” she says.

The last trip McMahon made to Syria was in 2011 to work on a suburban corner of Tell Brak. It was just about the time when the first protests began in Syria. In Damascus, she observed early morning protests and gunfire.

“At the time it didn’t seem important enough,” she says. “You know sort of maybe there was some unrest, who knew?” But people were starting to talk about what was happening in Tunisia and other places. The people they worked with were concerned and listened to the news a lot more.

“To be honest I can’t even remember what happened when the first real demonstration got going in Dara’a,” she says. Dara’a is the southern city where the anti-regime demonstrations first started. “It was a sort of slow gradual thing where you would hear ‘oh there was another demonstration, oh somebody got killed’.”

In the end, her team left earlier than scheduled. McMahon’s concern were the students who were in their early twenties. Some had never been in the country or the Middle East before. She, however, had worked in Iraq, Syria and Yemen — all conflict zones today.

McMahon first went to Iraq in 1987 as the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war was drawing to a close. She recalls waiting in a hotel in Baghdad getting ready to go down to a site. Suddenly there was a massive explosion. Everyone sitting around McMahon looked up, but then went back to having breakfast. The explosion had happened somewhere faraway. It eventually turned out to be an Iranian shell hitting an oil refinery on the far edge of Baghdad.

“It was a bit like World War Two in England,” she says. “The windows of the hotel were all taped together in a pattern so the glass would not blow in and kill people. A lot of the windows around Baghdad were like that.”

Nipur, where she was heading, was a long way from the actual battlefield. “Western archaeologists were very isolated from all of that in a way that now sounds terribly crass. But at the time it wasn’t that dangerous for us. It sounds terrible now but I didn’t feel unsafe.”

But the unrest in Syria in 2011 was a different affair. As the situation deteriorated, all McMahon wanted to do was leave the country as safely as possibly. She wasn’t afraid for herself, she says, but rather for the students.

Not everyone left. Saying goodbye to Syrians who had worked with the team wasn’t easy. Some had become very close friends and she had got to know certain families including siblings and children. Sometimes, the families would visit excavation sites. At other times McMahon would visit them for tea. “It was very difficult to leave when they were facing this uncertainty,” she says.

The civil war in Syria has made McMahon think about parallels with her own research. There have been discoveries of many mass graves in Syria and Iraq due to the present-day conflict. A survey last year found 72 sites in which Daesh is believed to have buried up to 15,000 victims, and more than 470,000 people have died so far since 2011.

The ancient civil war in Tell Brak was internal and on a much smaller scale, among some thousands of people. “In many ways the civil war in Syria is obviously much bigger, much more complicated. But ultimately it does come down to potentially same kinds of issues. Issues of power differential, oppression, unhappiness. There are a number of overlapping themes and reasons for the current civil war and this past civil war.”

The health of a lot of individuals within the mass grave was not very good. She notes they had poor teeth and the skeletons had porosities that indicate that their diet had not been particularly good. It seemed like the skeletons belong to poorer, lower class part of the population. At the time, around 3900 BC when this happened, there was a lot of big growth of institutions. There were luxury goods and a huge divide between rich and poor. “A huge divide between power and the powerless,” she notes.

Hollywood films like Indiana Jones have propagated a misleading image of archaeologists as thrill-seeking looters. “It’s not just the plunder,” says McMahon, “but also his search for treasure. And the fact that he does it on his own. These are the other issues that turn up in terms of Indiana Jones because archaeology is a team endeavour and invariably you have a team of at least a dozen to 20 people. Any larger then that it becomes quite a challenge to kind of manage people.”

Her Tell Brak team included an expert in paleo-botany, to look at what was being cooked in the ovens and identify the fuels used in kilns, and a surveyor to pinpoint where objects were or outline the architecture.

In recent years, many people have had a crash course in ancient Mesopotamia due to the destruction by Daesh of ancient ruins in Palmyra and Nimrud. When history is taught in schools and colleges, a lot of the focus is on ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. One of the reasons Mesopotamia gets less attention, McMahon feels, is that it’s much more difficult to sell.

“The Ziggurat of Ur is great, but that is mostly reconstructed from ancient materials,” she says. “When you go and look at some of these sites, they are fabulous. But they are challenging to actually envisage because of the mud-brick architecture. It melts down to nothing or it just kind of looks like random lumps. And even in places like the big Neo-Assyrian capital cities — Nimrud, which is probably now the most famous because of Daesh blowing up the big palace there — even there, it is so huge you almost can’t really take it in.”

I interviewed McMahon in her office, located above the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The preliminary versions of the findings about the mass grave at Tell Brak are already out there in the form of academic articles and public lectures given by McMahon. But further research is still going on. “This is the other sort of non-Indiana Jones aspect of archaeology as well. When you see Indiana Jones it is sort of here is something, and then immediate results, right?” says McMahon. “But a lot of the archaeology, there is the excavation part, but the analysis part often can take twice or three times as long as the excavation. People work at a site for a certain amount of time. The final publication of the work is often years after the actual excavation has finished.”  
Perhaps a more accurate description of archaeology can be found in Agatha Christie’s ‘Come Tell Me How You Live’, her memoirs from her time at the digs in Iraq and Syria: “Occasionally there is a royal palace, sometimes a temple, much more rarely a royal burial,” she writes. “These things are spectacular. They appear in newspapers in headlines, are lectured about, shown on screens, everybody hears about them! Yet I think to one engaged in digging, the real interest is in the everyday life—the life of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets – in fact, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.”

That is not to say there aren’t thrilling moments in archaeology. “Archaeology has these absolute moments of adventure and Indiana Jones like exploration and discovery,” says McMahon. “But good archaeology also involves really detailed clear recording of the process of discovery. So it is always kind of hovering between the two I think.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.